The Ashcan painters may have “lost” most battles during their time, but we should remember them by their goal: to paint the force of life.
By Morgan Meis
Human history is written from the perspective of the winners. But it is also the case that the winners are, more often than not, assholes. Looking back over the wreckage of past ages, losers can come off looking pretty good in comparison. The story of what-could-have-been sometimes beats the story of what-actually-was.
One scenario for meditations upon history’s winners and losers took place in New York City, 1913 when a group of painters decided to put on a show at the Armory building. The idea behind the show was simple. One of the organizers, John Quinn, expressed it in his opening address, “The members of this association have shown you that American artists — young American artists, that is — do not dread, and have no need to dread, the ideas or the culture of Europe.”
America was ready to confront the big boys (and a couple of girls) of European art. American art would no longer be perceived as the mostly provincial, second-order stuff of a colonial backwater. The Armory exhibit would display American artists like Oscar Bluemner, Patrick H. Bruce, James Earle Fraser, and Henry Twachtman alongside Cezanne, Redon, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, Kandinsky, and Duchamp. Likewise, art enthusiasts in the U.S. would get their first glimpse of Continental art movements: Neo-Impressionism, Futurism, Fauvism, Abstraction, and Cubism.
Viewers of the exhibit were also going to see the newest creations of those American artists who had come to be known as The Ashcan School. Painters like William Glackens, Robert Henri, George Luks, Everett Shinn, and a young Edward Hopper. The Ashcan artists painted with a dark and sooty realism. They favored street scenes, often at night, frequently in less-savory parts of town. They were not prim and proper artists of the salon. They were artists making art about real people doing real things. In the confrontation with the newest in European painting, the Ashcan School was bringing to the Armory show a blend of social relevance and a brazen, forward-looking painting style. It was going to be a good fight.
Suffice it to say, the Ashcan School lost. Badly. A headline in the Sun — a New York newspaper of the time — read, “Cubists, Futurists, and Post Impressionists Win First Engagement, Leaving the Enemy Awestruck.” The Ashcans were overshadowed. They weren’t, it turned out, as radical as they thought they were. Next to the wild lines of a Kandinsky, the utter breakdown in form of a Duchamp, the Ashcan paintings looked tame.
The Ashcan School has since been deemed a minor movement. They failed at the Armory and they were forgotten. Art history, like all history, is usually written from the perspective of the winners. But of what does this “winning” really consist? The “victory” of, say, Futurism over the Ashcan School in 1913 has much to do with the outbreak of WWI one year later. Futurism’s vision of a mechanized and war-torn reality was confirmed by real-world events. But are we to judge the worth of a school of painting by its prophetic powers or by, in this case, its celebration of industrialized war? Maybe the road not taken deserves a second look. What do we really know about the Ashcan School?
Because the Ashcan painters often painted scenes from urban life, from the immigrant-strewn streets of New York City, their work is often judged, positively or negatively, as a form of journalism. They were thought to be “documenting” the reality of life on the Lower East Side, “editorializing” the plight of the urban poor. In fact, neither of these motivations drove the Ashcan painters.
The Ashcan painters followed a specific path that was laid down by the charismatic painter and teacher Robert Henri. Henri was born in 1865. He recognized, as did most painters of the late 19th and early 20th century, that painting was at a crossroads. Newer technologies like photography and early moving pictures had displaced painting as the means for creating documents of record. Painting was forced to find itself anew, forced to ask what it could do that a medium like photography could not.
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